Some people are just born to help others — they have a knack for seeing a need and filling it to the best of their abilities. Being selfless is effortless; being caring is second nature; being empathetic is part of what drives their actions. In nearly every step of her life, Andrea Rodriguez has worked to empower the community around her, uplift her peers and enrich the minds of our youth. She has touched hundreds of people and helped to improve their lives. Rodriguez is more than an inspiration — she’s a local hero.
The California native came to Michigan at the age of 10. Her family settled in Alma, Mich. with her extended family, who were migrant farm workers. As a child, money was always tight for the family and her childhood home had deteriorated. At 11 years old, Rodriguez worked alongside her mother as a farm worker, which forced the family to constantly move. Rodriguez attended more than 10 different elementary and junior high schools throughout her education. Regardless of her elements, she felt rich in life. Her experiences molded her and moving around sparked a love in her, a love for people.
Even in her youth, Rodriguez knew that she had a calling: to teach. Growing up in a predominately Spanish-speaking area and in a home with Spanish-speaking parents, she still managed to learn English.
“I’m not sure how I learned to speak it because I wasn’t even in school yet, maybe it was from the TV,” said Rodriguez.
She recalled rounding up the other children in the neighborhood and teaching them English so that they could be bilingual, like her. Her fervor for teaching only grew; a high school teacher both inspired and helped Rodriguez to take the steps necessary to make it to a higher education. Rodriguez went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in bilingual education with a minor in mathematics and Spanish from Central Michigan University.
During her time in college, Rodriguez worked to become a voice for the Hispanic community. She became a junior representative for the Hispanic Representative Speaker of the House, a group formed to ensure that the students on campus and Latinos in the area were being treated fairly and had activities geared toward their interests.
Upon her graduation, she continued her efforts by joining the Michigan Farm Workers Empowerment Project (MFWEP). Being part of the MFWEP helped Rodriguez learn about community organizing and also offered her the opportunity to go to migrant camps and help better the living conditions of workers. Rodriguez lived with one of the workers, integrating herself into the very elements that she was fighting to change. Through her job, she facilitated programs to educate the farm workers and give them more of an influence in their own community.
“I got to meet more farmers and more migrant farmworkers. [I realized] more could be done through education, communication and empowerment,” Rodriguez said.
Rodriguez loved her job, but after working with MFWEP for a few years, the time came to make the tough decision: to stay and continue or pursue her lifelong dream of teaching. Ultimately, she decided to leave the MFEWP to make use of her teaching certification.
She took her first teaching position with a sixth grade class, which was part of the migrant integration program. Rodriguez excelled in the field and eventually became a counselor and then an assistant principal. Even though Rodriguez is now retired, she still loves to teach and sees it as an incredibly fulfilling job.
“I love when I can see [a child’s] eyes sparkle. I can tell when they really understand something.” Rodriguez said.
She now volunteers her time at the Cristo Rey Community Center in Lansing, where she has worked to develop a program called Tech en la Casa, which is designed to teach Hispanic parents and children basic technology skills. Tech en la Casa students learn how to use the internet, how to check their child’s grades and even how to make a PowerPoint presentation. The program has helped parents to learn the basic computer skills that are necessary in today’s technologically advanced world.
“The whole mission [is] to use technology to promote connections, communication and access,” said Rodriguez. “I knew that there was a gap so I developed the bilingual computer course to help improve the communication among parents, students and school staff.”
Rodriguez can’t help but keep herself busy — aside from volunteering at the community center, she also serves as a board member for the Hispanic Women in the Network (WIN). She helped to found the organization in the 1980s, but when she began teaching, the program was put on the back burner and faded out. Five years ago, she decided to reach out to past members to resurrect the group.
The main focus of WIN is working toward the leadership development of Latina women in Michigan, but has grown to include other community members as well. Now women and men from different backgrounds can be a part of this effort.
“There was a huge base of Latina women who were motivated and driven enough to make this project work,” Rodriguez said. “Regardless of how big we get, the one common goal that everyone must understand is that we are focused on Hispanic women leadership.”
More than 600 members connect through WIN’s Facebook page, which they use as their primary platform to exchange ideas, seek mentorship, post job openings and more. Some of their accomplishments include holding conferences around the United States, writing two extensive reports and supporting the nomination of Hispanic women for induction into the Michigan Women’s Hall of Fame. Thus far, there have been four Latina women who have been inducted into the Michigan Women’s Hall of Fame, and WIN was instrumental in this process by encouraging the women to nominate and assisting in the application process.
Rodriguez never stopped giving back to her community. She currently works part time as a library assistant at the Okemos Library. The teacher in her still peeks out from time to time, as she has taken on a teaching position through the library, teaching English as a second language.
“Working at the library is like heaven. It’s really just wonderful.” Rodriguez said.
Rodriguez’s most recent accomplishment was receiving Capital Area Women’s LifeStyle Magazines’ (CAWLM) Caring About Women Locally award. It is her creative, optimistic, visionary and faith-filled attitude that influenced her friends and family to nominate her. Rodriguez goes above and beyond for everyone, making her the ideal choice for the award.
Rodriguez said that receiving the award was a complete surprise, and that she was humbled by the honor. Even weeks after she had received the award, which was presented to her CAWLM’s 80’s Flashback Fundraiser, Rodriguez was still in shock that someone, somewhere, chose to honor her and all that she does for her community.
“I have so much to be thankful for,” Rodriguez said. “I just want to leave this world knowing I helped to make it a better place.”